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What's up with the prairie dresses?

Three weeks into covering the polygamous ranch raid story, I keep hearing from colleagues throughout NBC News who want to know more about how members of the sect live.

Much of what is interesting about their lives simply won't fit into a two-minute television news story because the legal battle, charges and counter charges crowd out what many might consider intriguing information.

VIDEO: Members of the polygamous sect speak out in an extended video with NBC's Don Teague

I spent several hours earlier this week speaking with parents at the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints ranch in Texas. It was my third long day on the ranch.

Here are some of the things members of the sect told me about life on the YFZ Ranch – which stands for Yearn For Zion – in Eldorado, Texas:

  • They drink coffee, which I know many mainstream Mormons don't do. I was shocked when they offered me a cup, but happy to drink it (they avoid carbonated and sugary drinks, but have no problem with caffeine).

  • They won't talk about what goes on inside their temple.
  • They do consider themselves Mormons. Yes, I know, their sect broke away from the Mormon Church more than a hundred years ago, and mainstream Mormons don't consider FLDS Mormons. But FLDS members do consider themselves Mormons.
  •  They consider jailed FLDS leader Warren Jeffs a prophet appointed directly by God. When I asked if he's still their leader in jail, they laughed. "Of course," they said. Each public room on the ranch has a series of pictures hanging on the wall. They begin with Joseph Smith, then Brigham Young, and cover several decades of prophets…ending with a picture of their current prophet, Jeffs.
  • What's up with the hair? Nothing, they said. I had heard there was some sort of class system among the FLDS, and you could tell certain things about the women by their hair. "Nope," they said. "We just like having long hair, but have to wear it up. Some of us braid it, or twist it into a bun, but there's nothing more to it than that."
  • They remain evasive when the subject of underage marriage comes up. While they won't confirm of knowing about more than one or two "possibly"16-year-old brides, they said brides younger than that are extremely rare. That is, if there are any, which they won't confirm (evasive, remember?). What they do say is that all women/girls are given the choice of saying "no" to an arranged marriage. And most choose to wait until they're at least 18 years old, if not older.
  • They don't call them "arranged marriages." They call them "placement marriages."
  • Exactly who a woman/girl marries is decided by a combination of church leaders and their parents. They claim, again, the bride has the right to say "no" to the marriage.
  • While not confirming the existence of underage brides, they do express dismay that the state of Texas raised the legal marriage age from 14 to 16 years (with parental consent) after the YFZ ranch was established in 2004. By the way, the state of Texas considers a 16-year-old who marries on the YFZ ranch a victim of sexual abuse, because the state doesn't recognize "spiritual marriage," or multiple wives as valid. Seventeen is the age of consent for a minor to have unmarried sex with an adult in Texas.
  • They admit to having multiple wives. It's what they do (though there are some men who only have one wife).
  • Wives married to the same man call themselves "sister wives." The multiple children created by these families call all of the women "mother." That's part of the reason Texas is DNA testing the children – because they're still having a hard time sorting these families out.
  • They absolutely hate having the ranch called a "compound." "Do you see any walls here?" they asked. They call it a ranch. There are cattle (dairy) to prove it, and they hope to get a few horses someday.
  • Why do they talk like that? Robotic, drugged, hypnotized, brain-washed, creepy – all words other people told me came to mind when they first heard the women speak after returning to the ranch last week. I'm not sure what the answer is, but I've discovered the timid, methodical speech pattern goes away after the person you're speaking with begins to relax a little. After a few minutes, speaking to a woman on the ranch is like speaking to any other somewhat reserved woman…except of course for the hair and the pastel prairie dresses.
  • So, what's up with the pastel prairie dresses? They said they like pastel prairie dresses.
  • Are they really afraid of the color red? "We don't wear red," one YFZ ranch woman told me. "But would your children think I'm the devil if I wore a red shirt?" I asked. She laughed at me. "No," she said, "but we don't wear it." I had driven my red car onto the ranch (all three times in fact). "Is my red car a problem?" I asked. "It's a car," was the answer.

VIDEO: Polygamist sect kids placed in foster homes
  • It really irks ranch residents that we in the media keep saying they're shut off and unfamiliar with the "outside world." I've spoken with ranch members who take their children to airports to watch the planes land, who snowboard, shop in stores, drive cars, etc. The FLDS sect has somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 members across the country. They definitely keep to themselves, but most of them don't live on closed-off "compounds" (I know, they hate that) like the YFZ ranch. Ranch residents said they move freely between YFZ and other communities throughout the country.
  • Women said they can leave at will. They said they can come and go at will and take their children with them. Some attend college and some have worked jobs in the "outside world."
  • I haven't met anyone on the ranch who owns a TV. They said it's not forbidden, but they don't want to expose their children to the sex and violence.
  • Most families on the ranch have computers with Internet access. One of the fathers I spoke with said he doesn't let his kids on the Internet for the same reasons he doesn't have a TV.
  • The kids go to school on the ranch in a nice building, with separate classrooms for boys and girls. It's not a year-round school – kids are basically on traditional school schedules.
  • Most families said they have family devotional time in the morning and the evening. They pray, and the parents talk to their kids about leading good lives.
  •  When children come home from school, they do community-based chores. They work in the gardens, pick up litter from the roads, help out with the dairy cattle, etc.
  • The primary job for women is to do "housework." Cooking, cleaning, caring for the kids full-time.
  • Men work on the ranch. They build roads, buildings, tend fields, make furniture, and they're in the process of installing a sewage treatment plant. They hope to pave the roads someday, eventually turning their collection of about 20 individual homes into a larger community. They think of it as a town, one that was growing rapidly until two weeks ago.
  • Where does the money come from? Labor is provided by men on the ranch. Also FLDS members from around the country to come to work on specific projects. The church and individual FLDS members provide operating funds. Many FLDS members own businesses that make plenty of money, which is given to the church broadly and the ranch specifically. One of the women who testified in a hearing last week said she had no idea who owns the home she lives in.
  • Men and women on the ranch said there is nothing more important to them than caring for and loving their children. Many have told me that they would do anything state authorities ask of them to regain custody of their kids. Despite saying they consider the ranch "Zion," and a peaceful, happy environment, they said they'll leave and move wherever they have to if it means getting their children back. The ranch has even created its own website to show you pictures of their kids and how happy they say they are.

Much of the above sharply contrasts with the picture of alleged physical and sexual abuse painted by state investigators. The courts will ultimately decide which version of the truth is closer to reality. I can't say whether what ranch residents tell me is true or not, but I thought you'd be interested in what they said.